Donal Park left his black Astra on the double yellow line and hoped for the best. He crossed the road and made his way into the post office. Waiting in the queue, his stupid conscience prodded him over and over again. Why had he not paid the seventy pence for the car-park? It would have been much easier.
Five minutes later, he handed his Qualifications Authority card over. The guy in the grey shirt lumbered off muttering "Not another one" just loud enough to add to Donal's anxiety. What was he supposed to say? Really sorry about asking you to do your job, which is clearly more difficult than anyone else's...
Why did they always spend an eternity at the back of the sorting office? Donal noticed that his hands had started to sweat as he popped his head out of the glass door to check for traffic wardens. He'd seen them in action, working their way up the street: two grim reapers looking for their next victim. Every year, when Donal came to pick up the scripts, he believed that this would be the one where they'd slap a fine on his windscreen.
When he turned back to the window, there the guy was, with his extra workload for the next few weeks. Three large grey plastic packages. Each containing at least 100 folio papers to mark for the exam board. Some were creative; some discursive. It made no difference to Donal. Quality was getting thin on the ground these days.
As he took the packages and turned to leave, he pictured himself following the same old ritual. Opening the packages to find out when to send them back by. Then the calculation-how many would he need to mark each night to get them done in time? Then the main calculation. The one he really cared about. He'd maybe clear about two hundred and fifty quid for the lot. Not much to write home about, but it'd give him a bit on the side, for the holidays.
Quickly sliding back into the car, Donal piled the papers onto the front passenger seat on top of a couple of empty crisp packets. As he slipped the car into first, he saw two black caps looming in his rear-view mirror. He grinned and joined the passing traffic with a quick boost on the accelerator.
When he got home, Donal usually took a bit of time to recover from his day. It was always mental torture trying to keep teenagers focused on their work. All they wanted to do was check who was on facebook, or cyberbully someone in another class.
He poured himself a drink from the cabinet and sat down, amongst the debris of his life. He always chose the old rocking chair. From here he could stare at the window ledge. And the only photo he still owned of Susie. Aged ten, taken by the seaside. Her blonde hair cartwheeling in the breeze, like she'd just put her hand on a Van de Graaf generator. One of the last days they'd spent together. Her smile melted him, again, just as it did here every day. Even her mother, waving madly in the background, couldn't spoil this moment.
A microwave meal later, Donal dug his fingers through the plastic and pulled. Stretching and ripping the packages was maybe the best part of this whole loathsome job. Out, as usual, tumbled a dozen or more brown packages and Donal's mind got to work. Two packets, or around twenty essays, per night should do it. Three whole weeks of working day and night. Best to get the damn thing started right away.
And so Donal began to pile through another distinctly average set of essays.
Until, three nights later, he blindly opened the package that relit his life.
The school's name didn't ring any bells. Cullness Grammar, Inverness. Another in the long, mediocre line. But when he got to the fourth script in the package, the handwriting seemed to reach out of the page to grab him.
Name: Susannah Park.
Title: Arguments for and against capital punishment.
Donal knew straight away it was Susie's.
Six years had passed since his wife had taken her away in the night. He could still picture the note on the mantelpiece: "It's over. Never come looking. We never want to see you." The night before he'd taken Susie out to Cineworld in Glasgow. She'd laughed hysterically when he'd spilled some Ben and Jerry's on his jacket. Their last laugh together. It had lasted the longest in his mind. His princess had disappeared without a trace and Donal had sunk purposefully away from hope.
He read the essay word by word. He read it a second and a third time. It did not even approach average...
He knew what he had to do. Pulling out his lap-top, he clicked a word document open and chose an identical typescript.
Name: Susannah Park.
Title: Is capital punishment a legitimate form of retribution for a democratic society to choose in the twenty-first century?
An hour later, the document buzzed out of Donal's HP deskjet. He stapled the sheets together tenderly and replaced the essay in the brown envelope, awarding 23 marks out of 25 next to Susie's name in the box at the front. It seemed to Donal, like the least that he could do to make up for what had been lost...
When Susannah Park moved into her student accomodation at Glasgow University six months later, her arrival came on the back of an unexpected A pass in her English exam.
She was, she told her friends, going back to live in her home town...
(*Dedicated to Mr London Street, whose post "Running" inspired me to finish this story.)